Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Brief (Very Brief) History of Practical Liturgics

Note: What you are about to read is an unfinished post. I began this and frankly found myself disinterested in following it to its conclusions. Having hammered out a good chunk of it, it seemed best to publish it rather than let it sit in draft form perpetually.

Liturgical studies is a curious field with a myriad of manifestations. You have your mainline academic scholarship with its increasing reliance on sociology, cultural anthropology, gender theory, etc. You have, typically in Europe (and more than a few times buried in the halls of the Vatican), a subset devoted to amassing an almost encyclopedic knowledge of some of the most arcane pieces of liturgical history. Sometimes this group crawls out of the shadows and discusses how a particular piece found its way into the modern Roman liturgy. You have your ecclesiastical liturgists, those concerned largely with liturgy in its ritual setting. Then you have the area of practical liturgical studies, that is, the subversion of all of the aforementioned into allegedly immediate concerns. It is this group that has made its presence felt on the Internet and, for the most part, takes up the majority of the space in the open commerce of ideas.

More accessible to the layman and better suited to get boisterous discussion going, the practical or popular liturgical studies movement has made its mark. It was this movement that put some wheels on the "reform of the reform," made Josef Ratzinger's liturgical writings an unavoidable reference point, and ultimately galvanized a series of publishing projects one wouldn't have thought possible only 20 years ago.

And then things kind of stopped. A hard, sudden stop. And there doesn't seem to be much sense of direction.

Sometimes it easier to have a focus when you initially get off the ground. Practical or popular liturgical studies initially had very manifest goals. Starting with the late Helen Hitchcock's Adoremus Bulletin, the field set its sights on some immediate targets: adherence to liturgical norms, translation issues, restoration of sacred music, etc. Among a younger generation, it eventually incorporated Reform of the Reform ideas and a restoration of the 1962 Missal.

Results were achieved (or perhaps merely witnessed), though somewhat mixed. A new translation was published. There has been more press concerning sacred music, in particular chant, and perhaps even more overall interest - although this may have had as much to do with the succession of chant themed music releases over the last decade and a half. And of course, Summorum Pontificum.

Popular Liturgiology or practical liturgics (whatever you wish to call it) has wandered aimlessly after living to see some major events. It seems the field is tired and cliche`, lacking the excitement of the mid-late 90s and the sense of purpose of the early 2000s.

Part of the problem was the shift that occurred as the 2000s has worn on. What began as movement invested in curbing the mediocre celebration of the modern Latin liturgy and diving headlong into said liturgy became sidetracked by the Missal of 1962. The Missale Romanum of 1962 became a totem object, fetishized as the height of liturgical expression in the Latin Church. In the process of this festishization, there was a concerted attempt to "revive" what was imagined to be the Catholic culture of the 1950s and 1960s (forgetting that the 1920s, 30s, and 40s were far more interesting). It soon became a mess of things taken totally out of context, selective readings, and a growing arrogance towards anyone who failed to see the necessity of restoring the former missal and its trappings.

The arrogance had little to do with sound scholarship (as if that would make it acceptable) and more to do with the particular religious imagination of a subset of people being drawn to the topic. Thus, the debatable work of Christine Morhmann took on pride of place along with those of other scholars who fed their religious imagination. Works of the same scholars that did not feed the beast were typically ignored. Even their beloved Pope Ratzinger was heavily edited until he sounded exactly like one of them.

The end result was the popular liturgics had become a narcissistic little liturgy cult, so self referential that anything that could not be used to feed the imagination and further their particular narrative was discarded.

Sound linguistics on the nature of the Latin language was ignored in favor of a contrived tale of the origins of Christian Latin. Impeccable research on the history of the Latin liturgy or studies into the modern Latin liturgy (so few spent time with Johnson and Ward's work) was practically non-existent in their reference libraries. And somehow, somehow, many of them missed the point of Hull's The Banished Heart.

One can only wonder what comes next. This is a question of pivotal interest as the future of the Latin tradition rests in its answer. Practical liturgics has run along side the liturgical and ecclesiological currents in the Latin Church. From its origins in the effort to see a new translation of the Missale Romanum promulgated and see a line-by-line celebration of the liturgy missal to the present, this at times unconventional subset of liturgical studies has variously depend liturgical appreciation and ecclesiological divide.

Post script: There was a time when what I call practical liturgics had a certain creative energy, a sense of purpose, and indeed a sense of fun. Despite my bias for the old liturgy, this was during the period where most efforts were geared towards re-translating the modern Roman Rite and/or re-integrating the Latin language into the liturgical setting. When the focus eventually shifted on restoring the missal of 1962 and the Church they (a generation that hadn't even been born at the time) imagined existed, the whole thing simply devolved. When the paradigm shifted from recovering the sacred via the enforce liturgical books, to pretensions of a "new liturgical movement", the whole thing became a self referential narcissistic liturgy club. Great scholarship was ignored in favor of filling an ideological narrative and the only opinion permitted was that which supported their little dictatorships.

The old liturgy (whatever version of it you prefer) was done a tremendous disservice by such a clumsy attempt at restoration. I am willing to state publicly what more than a few readers have communicated to me privately, this grotesque parody of the Western tradition made the modern Latin liturgy a far more attractive option than it had been previously.

So perhaps it is only fitting that things seem to be coming full circle. There is more discussion about restoring chant in the modern Roman Rite and increasing interest in the present day liturgical practice (and books) of the monastic orders. Perhaps practical liturgics is returning to form and leaving the charade of restorationism behind. Unfortunately, the classical Latin liturgy will be undesirable casualty of this - it will be herculean task to salvage the old Latin liturgy from self referential ecclesiology and shoddy historical perspective.

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